Taiwan on Wednesday sparked a wave of destruction, marking 23 years since the deadly Chi-Chi or “GG” earthquake that killed more than 2,400 people and changed the way East Asian democracy approaches disaster management and prevention .
On September 21, 1999, at 2.3 a.m. local time, an earthquake measuring 7.3 in Chi-Chi Township of central Taiwan triggered a wave of force that toppled buildings like Taipei, about 145 kilometers to the north.
According to an assessment report by private sector firm Risk Management Solutions (RMS), over 8,500 buildings were destroyed, with another 6,200 severely damaged.
Earthquakes are nothing new to Taiwan, which is located in an area of seismic and volcanic activity known as the Pacific Ring of Fire, but the 1999 Chi-Chi earthquake was notably caused by numerous man-made errors. was fatal.
A post-quake analysis found that many buildings collapsed due to structural problems, such as poorly designed load-bearing lower levels, said sociologist Lin Thung-hong of Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s top research institute.
Many of these were later attributed to corruption during the island’s construction boom in the 1980s and early 1990s, as politicians and local politicians turned a blind eye to potential construction and engineering defects in new apartment buildings.
Anger over the findings would upset the island’s “political landscape,” Lin told Granthshala, as Taiwanese residents demanded greater accountability and oversight in the housing and construction industries.
The Chi-Chi earthquake marked Taiwan’s transition from a one-party state led by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to a full democracy, whose leaders were elected by universal suffrage.
In the early days of Taiwan’s transition, the KMT was still largely under government control, but the earthquake helped the opposition Democratic Progressive Party win the presidency for the first time six months later, as many in Taiwan turned to the old guard. Missed it.
“The KMT government at that time really didn’t do very well in the early post-earthquake period and it was seriously criticized by the local people,” Lin said over the phone. “In Nantou and Taichung” [in central Taiwan]Voters punished the KMT government. The March 2000 presidential election was the first time the DPP government came to power.”
Ellen Lin Kuan-hye, assistant professor at National Taiwan Normal University’s Graduate Institute of Environmental Education, said major legislative reforms about how Taiwan’s government would handle natural disasters, from earthquakes to typhoons, in the months following the Chi-Chi earthquake were seen.
Some rules were in place, but they would become more widespread after the disaster. “It’s clear that before the Chi-Chi earthquake in Taiwan, we really didn’t have a concrete disaster mitigation plan or any concrete policy,” she said.
After the earthquake, officials replaced a basic “action plan” with more detailed rules for how natural disasters would be handled going beyond the national level to village jurisdictions. Communities also began to take more ownership of their local preparedness, Lin said, to ensure they could meet challenges ranging from earthquakes to typhoons.
Major changes were also included in the construction regulations, said Chesley Williams, senior director of product management in the global earthquake division at RMS, an analytics company. “Taiwan has included seismic design codes since the 1980s, but after the Chi-Chi earthquake in September 1999, new seismic design requirements led to significant improvements in seismic performance,” Williams said by email.
Many of these changes include adding dampeners to withstand shock and changing the way buildings are designed, said Tony Yang, a specialist in structural and earthquake engineering at the University of British Columbia.
“We can’t make everything earthquake resistant, but we can make it more resilient and able to withstand earthquakes,” he said. The most dramatic example of this may be the iconic “Taipei 101” skyscraper, which is topped by a 660-metric-ton pendulum to help counteract earthquake tremors.
These days the Taiwanese government can also use the island’s extensive cell phone network to send earthquake alerts, which can provide a brief buffer time to prepare for the impact.
While the new wave of reform changed Taiwan dramatically, laws and regulations have not been able to fix everything.
The island sits along the Eurasian and Philippine Sea tectonic plates, meaning that earthquakes are inevitable. Scientists have been able to map many of Taiwan’s fault lines and monitor seismic activity, but the tremors are still unpredictable.
Another problem is that even though construction standards were put in place for new buildings, thousands of privately owned older buildings have yet to be retrofitted, said Lin of Academia Sinica. Even with government subsidies, some owners find the cost too expensive, he said, meaning they may not find out about the design flaws until it’s too late.
Similar challenges were faced in the 2016 earthquake, which toppled a 17-story residential building – killing more than 100 people – and most recently when two consecutive earthquakes struck the southeast coast on Saturday and Sunday , which was followed by dozens of aftershocks on Monday.
Earthquake activity was felt across Taiwan, killing one person and injuring 165. The tremors derailed a passenger train, broke roads, damaged buildings and bridges, and toppled a 7-Eleven, while it also left hundreds of pedestrians stranded on an east coast mountaintop. after the landslide.
UBC’s Yang said there is only so much that can be done but with each earthquake, smaller improvements can be made as more data is acquired.
“Chi-Chi was not the first earthquake the world saw. Whenever a major earthquake occurs, we can learn more information and start adding it to new [building] code,” he said.